Choose a format, medium and subject, and like Claude Monet and his haystacks, get to work at refining your style, technical agility and expression by way of this one, specific route. For Monet, what gave his one-track investigation depth were the light and environmental conditions thrust upon his subject: take a bale of hay set in a golden field and let the day cast its shadows from dawn until gloaming. After a few hundred passes, you’ve got an MFA in colour.
Vancouver musician Jean Smith, at 56, pivoted from punk rock and a day job at Home Depot to portrait painting. In the spirit of her anti-establishment aesthetic, she stuck to one small format and eschewed the art world, instead offering her portraits, mostly of strangers, almost all of women’s faces subverting the viewer’s gaze, for $100 each on her Facebook page. Each is 14 x 11 inches, acrylic on canvas panel, and offered one at a time. In four years, Jean has saved $200,000 and is now starting a free artist’s residency — world-changers only are welcome to apply.
Here are a few ideas for your own project in specificity: Select a subject that can be both exhausted and also offer an infinite variety — something in nature that accepts a multitude of conditions, or the endless possibilities of the human face. Staying small keeps your process fresh and commitment low. For this idea, volume is the key to growth and experimentation. Never underestimate the power of an obsession. As it did for Jean, this little project has the potential to unlock your larger, most audacious artistic callings.
PS: “We shall not cease from exploration / And in the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” (T. S. Eliot)
Esoterica: Between the Autumn of 1890 and the Spring of 1891, Claude Monet painted 25 haystack paintings — each exuding a mystery and character that seemed to encapsulate his painting life, overall. Between 1840 and 1926, Monet also painted more than 30 versions of Rouen Cathedral — again following the light and atmospheric conditions thrown upon his stationary subject at different times of day and year. For Jean Smith, her faces are pulled from the Internet as photo reference and appear to be assigned interior lives, occupations and purposes beyond existing merely for the viewer. More interesting than this, however, is Jean’s handling of her palette and brush. In this way, her portraits could be haystacks — they carry, as a subject, the same practical function of getting her from A to B in a personal exploration of vibe, conditions, surface quality, brushwork, expression, colour surprise and a satisfying, exhaustive repetition of motif. “I would like to paint,” wrote Claude Monet, “the way a bird sings.”
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“Paint what you really see, not what you think you ought to see; not the object isolated as in a test tube, but the object enveloped in sunlight and atmosphere, with the blue dome of Heaven reflected in the shadows.” (Claude Monet)
I am a landscape painter exposing the mystery in an ordinary day.